CHRIS ETCHINGHAM examines the life and times of notorious Serb warlord and ‘football fan’ Arkan.
On a spring afternoon in late March 1992, The Eternal Derby is about to take place between city rivals Partizan and Red Star Belgrade at Red Star’s Marakana stadium. Partizan are seen by their rivals as everything they stand against. They are the club of the Yugoslav state and the army whilst Red Star are the club of Serbia and it is they alone who hold Serb values and will protect Serb identity in the face of increasing self determination from Croatia and Bosnia. It is their fans who were at Maksimir on the day that they fought with Dinamo Zagreb ultras the Bad Blue Boys and it was their fans who followed the call to arms to protect fellow Serbs where they were threatened as war broke out in the rapidly disintegrating Yugoslavia.
As the game started, both sets of fans hurled the usual insults to each other “faggots, Turks” and so on. Soon, however, the chanting stopped as Serb paramilitaries known as the Tigers began to make their way to the North stand. The Tigers were drawn from the terraces of the Marakana as they belonged to Red Star’s feared Delije ultras and one-by-one they each held up a road sign “20 miles to Vukovar”, “10 miles to Vukovar” and so on until the last sign was lifted “welcome to Vukovar”. As this macabre piece of theatre reached its climax, a man emerged from the terrace to take the rapturous applause of both sets of fans now united in their adulation for the figure who had presented himself to them. That man was the notorious Arkan – bank robber, crime boss, war lord and football fan. Jonathan Wilson stated that the display showed that “football’s pact in the Balkan horrors was laid bare”.
Arkan was born Zeljko Raznatovic in a Slovenian border town in 1952, the son of an officer from the Yugoslav air force who had been involved with Partisan resistance in World War Two. Following his parents divorce, Arkan drifted into petty crime and purse snatching and after avoiding his father’s wishes and joining the Yugoslav air force, he ended up in Paris where he was deported back to Yugoslavia. In the early seventies he ended up back in Western Europe where, in connection with the Yugoslav underworld and occasionally the Yugoslavian secret service, he began a cat and mouse career across several countries; robbing banks, being arrested by the authorities and escaping from prison to continue his criminal activities in the next country. Arkan was wanted in Sweden, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland and even made it onto Interpol’s list of its ten most wanted people.
By the early eighties he was back in Yugoslavia and following a bank robbery in Zagreb in which he wounded two police officers, he again called upon his friends within government to help free him after a couple of days in prison. By 1986, he had returned to Belgrade and opened a patisserie across the road from the Marakana which provided a suitable front for his continuing criminal activities.
In the same year the Serbian Communist Party acquired a new leader, Slobodan Milosevic, who became President of Serbia the following year capitalising upon the riots in Kosovo which had a distinct theme of Serb nationalism. Milosevic knew that he had to maintain his popular support and he kept pushing the Serb nationalist agenda. To do this he knew he needed to enlist the help of Red Star’s Delije and, of course, Arkan to get them onside before events swayed them against him.
Arkan had also decided that to change the outlook of the Delije and began to give them a more militaristic attitude; “they’re noisy, they like to joke about, I stopped all that in one go. I made them cut their hair, shave regularly, not drink. The way it should be”. He made himself inexpendable to the Delije too, he organised ticket distribution as well as accommodation and travel to away games.
The Delije under Arkan were also present at what some have described as the starting point for the Croatian war of independence, the infamous Maksimir riot. In spring 1990, Franjo Tudjman had been elected as President of Croatia exploiting the same nationalist fervour that Milosevic had done previously. He revived the red and white chequered Sahovnica and proclaimed his relief that his wife was neither a Jew nor a Serb. On 13 May 1990, Red Star and the ultra nationalist Delije met Dinamo Zagreb and their equally nationalist Croatian fans the Bad Blue Boys (BBB). Arkan was of course amongst the Delije that day and many people believe that the events that took place were pre-meditated and orchestrated. During the ensuing violence almost 130 fans and police were injured but the day is best remembered for the iconic image of Zvonimir Boban and his flying kick at a policeman in an attempt to protect a Dinamo fan. Arkan himself made a beeline for the Red Star bench and he personally protected the Red Star manager, coaches and non-playing staff.
As the Croatian fight for independence began in late 1991, Arkan and the Delije moved into Croatia as the disciplined military force known as the Tigers, some members had the Red Star club badge sewn onto their uniforms too. They would move from town to town and village to village ethnically cleansing the neighbourhood of non-Serbs. It was in Croatia that he really gained his notoriety and in particular the town of Vukovar on the border between Croatia and Serbia.
Between August and November of 1991, Serb forces attacked Vukovar with artillery before forces including the Tigers were involved with an amphibious crossing into the town dividing Croatian forces before forcing their surrender. What followed has become known as the Hospital Massacre and Arkan played a central part. Following the town’s fall, the Serbs took control of the local hospital and personnel inside including wounded Croatian soldiers as well as hospital staff and civilian patients too. Promises of safe evacuation to the Croatian government and the Red Cross were broken and observers were barred from entering the front of the hospital whilst prisoners were forced out of a rear entrance onto buses. They were taken to a farm outside Vukovar and some 300 people were executed and deposited in a mass grave. The eldest person was 75, the youngest 16; there was at least one woman and a French mercenary.
It was also in Vukovar that Arkan remembered that he was a football fan and used his influence to help out a young Sinisa Mihajlovic, “I met him through football. During a short period we spent a lot of time together” the defender later said. Mihajlovic was born in Borovo, close to Vukovar to a Croat mother and Serb father and upon signing for Red Star, Arkan seemed to take the young defender under his wing and helped him settle in Belgrade. With lines of communication cut for several months whilst Croats still occupied Vukovar, Mihajlovic had little idea as to his parent’s welfare, something which opposing players could use to ignite his short fuse during matches, most notably Igor Stimac in a match between Red Star and Hajduk Split.
Once Serb forces had taken Vukovar they went from house to house seeking non Serbs to carry out acts of retribution on. It is suggested that Arkan personally intervened to ensure that Mihajlovic’s parents were kept safe and then smuggled over the border into Serbia and then onto Belgrade for their safety. Arkan even ensured that Mihajlovic’s uncle, an officer in the Croatian army, was looked after upon being captured too – this after the uncle had called Mihajlovic’s mother to state what he wanted to do with her Serb husband.
Arkan was also in Bosnia at the start of their war for independence in 1992 and this time was a little different. His crimes were caught on camera for the world to see. The football hooligan who organised tickets to away matches was finally shown to be the man he truly was. Ron Haviv was an American photographer who latched on to the Tigers and had been documenting them. Haviv described how in the town of Bieljina he saw a man dragged out of a local mosque and shot by members of the Tigers. His wife was then dragged out too and as she knelt down in front of her husband holding his hand she was shot too. A young boy who had managed to wriggle free and start to run from his assailers found his escape route blocked by a wall and was shot in the back. Haviv published the photographs he took that day of the men, who until recently, were football fans carrying out murders in cold blood. Arkan was furious at the publications and threatened Haviv with the ultimate retribution.
Back in Serbia, Arkan had got married and became increasingly outraged as he watched Croats retake land that he and the Tigers had taken. He called members of the Delije and asked them to reform. Within an hour they were ready and waiting outside the Marakana and they marched back into Bosnia
As Kosovo descended into conflict in the late 1990’s, 20 burnt corpses were found in the Albanian village of Velika Krusha; surviving villagers said that the massacre was the work of Arkan and the Tigers.
In June 1996, once the war in Bosnia had ended, Arkan returned to football where he purchased Belgrade team, Obilic. He had built a house next to the Marakana and tried to purchase his beloved Red Star but the club’s president had told him that a deal wasn’t possible. The choice of Obilic was entirely obvious as the club are named after Milos Obilic who had killed the Turkish sultan at the Battle of Kosovo. Both Obilic’s actions and the battle itself are key to Serb identity and one reason why the Serbs fought so hard to keep Kosovo.
Not one to play by the rules, Arkan did things a little differently. Referees upon arriving at the stadium would be greeted by heavy set men, opposition players would find themselves coincidently injured for the away fixture at Obilic and armed members of the Tigers would position themselves in the crowd in positions prominent to the away team. Arkan even visited the away dressing room at half time and was not above making blatant threats to opposition strikers if they had the temerity to score in the second half.
Unsurprisingly, Obilic won promotion in the 1996/97 season followed by the league title the following season. Having gone twenty four games unbeaten at the start of the season as defending champions, the league was suspended due to NATO bombings of Serbia brought on by the Kosovo conflict.
As Obilic rose and qualified for European football, UEFA began to notice them. By now Arkan was an indicted war criminal and UEFA shuddered at the thought of such a personality leading a team into the Champions League so Arkan stepped down and his wife took over as President of the club.
In January 2000, fate caught up with Arkan. He was drinking coffee with friends at the International Hotel in Belgrade when he was shot thirty eight times at close range. The motives for the assassination were unclear. Several theories were considered; an underground hit, a victim from somewhere in Croatia or Bosnia or perhaps Arkan knew too much and it was the Serbian government who thought that as a potential defendant in The Hague he had to be silenced.
The following week in Italy, Lazio fans in the Curva Nord unfurled a banner in homage to Arkan – “honour to Arkan the fallen Tiger”. The link to Arkan was that, by now, Sinisa Mihajlovic was playing for Lazio and he refused to condemn the banner. This was also the same time he was kindly referring to Patrick Vieira as a “black shit” and was seen as footballing enemy number one. However, Mihajlovic had his reasons for failing to condemn Arkan. Little was known about Arkan’s attempts to help Mihajlovic’s family but as the defender later stated “I will always be grateful for saving my uncles life. It’s easy to point a finger from the outside, but he defended the Serbs who would otherwise be massacred in Croatia. I condemn the war crimes he’s committed, but in a civil war, there is no good or evil.”
Arkan, it is clear to see, had little or no redeeming features. He was a man whose name drew fear and hatred in equal measures amongst so many people, yet he was a product, to some extent, of Yugoslavian football. He was a fan; he celebrated his team’s victories and despaired at their losses. He was also so much more too. He was a murderer, a war criminal and a man who had no place anywhere near a football stadium. Hopefully we will never see his like again.
CHRIS ETCHINGHAM – @CArmband